The impact of COVID-19 has held a magnifying glass up to the pressures facing society. For the legal profession as a whole, the ramifications have been severe and, predictably, those at the junior end have been heavily impacted.
Our justice system was already close to collapse before the onset of COVID-19. The resulting need for social distancing and lockdown has hit it like an earthquake, rocking it to its very foundations. While the jobs we do have not changed, per se, the way in which we work has altered immensely. A traditionalist profession in which hard-copy bundles are still required for a vast number of hearings has suddenly had to embrace digital working, virtual attendances at police stations and court hearings, and working from home.
We surveyed our members to discover how the COVID-19 pandemic was impacting on them, from job security and workload to technology and working from home. The responses confirmed what we had suspected – that it was making their working lives even more unsustainable, with the high levels of stress and low levels of remuneration being exacerbated and compounding the sustainability crisis within the legal aid sector.
Based on these responses, we published our COVID-19 report
on 7 April 2020, and will be campaigning for our recommendations to be implemented in order to ensure the junior, and most vulnerable, members of the profession are given proper protections at this difficult time.
We found that more than 45 per cent of respondents were either extremely or quite worried about their job security. Eighty per cent of junior legal aid barristers reported that their workloads had either significantly decreased or been decimated by the crisis.
Twelve per cent of employed respondents had been furloughed and eight per cent had been forced to take reduced working hours. Two respondents had had their employment terminated. Numerous respondents commented that even if they were not furloughed, 80–90 per cent of their firm had been. Those who had been furloughed included trainee solicitors who were concerned about the impact of this on their training contracts.
Most of those furloughed said that they would be receiving the 80 per cent wages offered by the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, rather than their firms topping them up to their full salaries. We note that the salaries of young legal aid lawyers were already low – our March 2018 report, Social mobility in a time of austerity
, found that 53 per cent of respondents were earning less than £25,000.
Barristers said that, with trials adjourned, the hearings they were able to do were insufficient to pay their bills, noting that preparation for cases and paperwork done outside of court is not paid for. This is a long-standing complaint of criminal defence practitioners, and the unreasonableness of this refusal to pay for written work completed is being compounded by the COVID-19 crisis.
In terms of avoiding the risk of infection, 18.2 per cent of respondents stated that they were still required to attend court in person, with a further 25 per cent being required to put themselves at risk by, for example, attending police station interviews and face-to-face client appointments.
There were additional challenges for those balancing work with caring responsibilities (10.5 per cent of our respondents). One member had to move out of home to continue to work without placing their terminally ill mother at risk.
Fifteen per cent of respondents were not provided with the equipment they needed to be able to work from home. Some respondents stated that they were required to use their own mobile phones and laptops for work. Some had to purchase their own equipment without any guarantee of reimbursement.
Throughout our report, we make a series of 25 recommendations, including:
•The Legal Aid Agency (LAA) should take urgent action to ensure the financial viability of providers. This should include continuing to make regular payments to providers based on their usual legal aid income.
•The Council of the Inns of Court should ensure a coordinated approach between the Inns to make sure that the most junior legal aid barristers do not experience financial hardship.
•The Bar Standards Board should remove its agreement for chambers to vary pupillage awards that have already been advertised.
•The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) should confirm that training contract periods will not be extended if a trainee has sufficient experience to qualify.
We call on the Ministry of Justice, the LAA, HM Courts and Tribunals Service, The Law Society and the SRA, The Bar Council and the Inns of Court, chambers, firms, and all other representative bodies, to do all they can to protect young legal aid lawyers in this time of global crisis.